by Eric V. Snow
F Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?
F Did Paganism Influence First Century Christianity?
F How do you know miracles can happen?
F Can we prove Jesus really walked the Earth?
F How do you know if the Bible is God's word?
F How do you know if God exists?Many who have been Christians for years have become disillusioned by questions like those above because they did not have the answers for them. Often these people end up leaving Christianity. Atheists often pose these questions to Christians. Are you ready to answer them? A Jew might ask, "Why should I believe in the New Testament?" Could you give rational reasons to believe in it? Suppose somebody said, "First century Christianity was influenced by pagan religions and philosophy." Could you refute him? Peter said we should be able to answer questions about our faith: "Always being ready to make a defense [gr., apologian] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence" (I Pet. 3:15).
These kind of questions are dealt with by apologetics, which means to defend the faith. "Apologetics" comes from the Greek word that means "fit for defense." It doesn't mean you're sorry or making excuses for your belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Because the general subject is so broad, just two major attacks against Christianity will be covered. Whether the New Testament [NT] is historically reliable and whether those who wrote it were influenced by pagan mystery religions of the Roman empire.
Based on History, NOT Myths
Christianity is different from most religions as it is based on historical facts, which are subject to historical investigation and confirmation. The NT is primarily a historical book and is not a collection of myths, such as the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad-Gita which isn't taken literally even by most believers in it.
The Bibliographical Test
The military historian, C. Sanders, devised a three part test when investigating any historical document to determine whether it was reliable. One of these tests is the bibliographical test, which judges an ancient historical document to be more reliable if many copies of the manuscript exist. A second test maintains the smaller the time gap between the first copy of the document and the first surviving copy, the more reliable it is because there is less time for scribal errors to creep into the preserved text. By these two standards the NT is the best attested ancient historical writing in existence. Some 24,633 known copies (including fragments, etc.) exist of it, 5,309 of these being in Greek. By contrast, the document with the next highest number of copies, outside the Hebrew Old Testament [OT] (which has over 1700 copies), is Homer's Iliad, with 643. Other historical writings by prominent ancient historians have far fewer copies: Thucycides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 8; Herodotus, The Histories, 8; Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, 10.
Furthermore, the time gap between the earliest preserved copies and the autograph, or first manuscript, is much smaller for the NT than these works. For the NT, the gap is about 90 years or less, since most of it was first written before 70 A.D. Scholar, John A. T. Robertson, in "Redating the New Testament", has maintained that every NT book was written before 70 A.D., including John and Revelation. Dates that place the writing of the NT in the second century have been generally discredited by scholars in recent decades. A fragment of John, dated to 125 A.D., is traditionally cited as the earliest copy known of any part of the NT. However, nine fragments of the NT were found in 1972 in a cave by the Dead Sea. Among these fragments, part of Mark was dated to around 50 A.D., Luke 57 A.D., and Acts from 66 A.D. The earliest major manuscripts, such as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are dated to 325-350 A.D. and 350 A.D. respectively.
By contrast, the time gap is much larger for the pagan works mentioned above. For Homer, the gap is 500 years (900 B.C. for the original writing, 400 B.C. for the first copy). For Caesar, it's 900-1000 years, Herodotus, 1300 years and Thucycides, 1300 years. Hence, the NT can be objectively judged more reliable than these pagan historical works both by having a much smaller time gap between when it was written and the first preserved copies, and in the number of ancient handwritten copies.
The Science of Textual Criticism
Skeptics can throw out some frightening figure, and say "There are 200,000 variations in the NT," and create doubts in Christians. However, we can have certainty that the scribes preserved the NT accurately by using the principles of the science of textual criticism. Most of variations between the manuscripts can be ruled out using this test. Most of these "200,000 variations" are spelling mistakes, homophones (such as in English, "two," "too," "to"), words accidently repeated twice by scribes, etc. For example, if the same word is misspelled 3,000 times, that counts for 3,000 variations. Once one realizes this, the number of significant variations takes a huge downward plunge.
Scholar, Ezra Abbott, maintained 19/20ths of NT variations have so little support that they can be automatically ruled out. Scholars Geisler and Nix, building upon the work of F. J. A. Hort, said only about 1/8 have weight, with 1/60 being "substantial variations." Furthermore, the number of variations is high precisely because so many ancient manuscripts of the NT exist, allowing for more mistakes. This also allows a greater ability to detect and eliminate those mistakes, unlike the case for Caesar's " Gallic Wars" with its mere 10 copies. Scholar Philip Schaff said only 400 of all the 150,000 variations he knew to exist caused doubt on textual meaning, with 50 being of great significance. Even then, he said no variation altered "an article of faith or a precept of duty which is not abundantly sustained by other and undoubted passages, or by the whole tenor of scripture teaching."
How We Can Be Certain
Christians should have no doubts on the canon of the NT, meaning which books should be in it and which ones shouldn't be. The quality of the apocryphal (so-called "missing") books, such as "The Gospel of Peter," "The Gospel of Thomas," and "The Shepherd of Hermas," is so much lower and/or their teachings at such variance with the canonical books that they can be eliminated from consideration easily. As M. R. James commented in The Apocryphal New Testament: "There is no question of any one's having excluded them from the New Testament: They have done that for themselves." In evident reaction against the heretic Marcion's (c. 140 A.D.) attempt to edit the canon, lists of the canonical books were made in the late second century onwards. These lists, which even from the beginning, contain most of the books we find in the NT today, were made by the author of the Muratorian fragment (170 A.D.), Irenaeus (180 A.D.), and Clement (190 A.D.).
Furthermore, despite its claims to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church did not choose the canon, and then impose it from the top down. The Sunday-observing Church before the time of emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) was not a tightly controlled, highly organized, monolithic group, and had suffered terrible persecution itself during the rule of Diocletian and earlier emperors. The canon came from the traditional practices of average members and eldersfrom the bottom up. As scholar Kurt Aland noted: "It goes without saying that the Church, understood as the entire body of believers, created the canon.... it was not the reverse; it was not imposed from the top, be it by bishops or synods."
Other Historical Information
The external evidence test, the second of Sanders' approach to analyzing historical documents, consists of seeing whether statements made in a historical document correlates with other evidence, such as that found by archeology or in other historical writings. The best story about this concerns the great English archeologist, Sir William Ramsay. He had been totally skeptical about the accuracy of the NT, especially the writings of Luke. After going to what is now Turkey, and doing a topographical study, he was forced to totally change his mind. Later, he wrote that Luke "should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." He had believed, as per nineteenth century German higher criticism, that Acts was written in the second century. But he found it must have been written earlier, because it reflected conditions typical of the second half of the first century.
Others had doubted the existence of Pontius Pilate, who had Jesus crucified in 31 A.D., and who was mentioned only in the NT and by a few other Roman and Jewish sources. But in 1961, an archeological expedition from Italy was digging in the ruins of Caesarea's ancient Roman theater. One workman turned over a stone stairwayand found an inscription to Pontius Pilate on the bottom. This case illustrates a principle that disbelievers in the Bible use time and time again. They argue from silence, and say that because something mentioned in the OT or NT is mentioned nowhere else, it can't be true. Many such claims have been repeatedly refuted by archeological discoveries made later. The NT (and OT) have shown themselves trustworthy so often in what can be checked, that we can properly infer that the rest of what cannot be checked is also reliable.
Influenced by Paganism?
We now turn to the question of whether first century Christianity was influenced by paganism. We face the raw fact that such charges are dead issues among contemporary scholars in the fields of classics and Biblical studies. Seeing parallels between the ideas of Gnosticism or Mithraism and Christianity were common in the period from about 1890 to 1940, but are rarely circulated today except by the uninformed. Hence, when H.G. Wells saw parallels between the language used by Paul about the crucifixion and Mithraism in his history of the world, "The Outline of History", that book, which was first published just after WWI, reflected its day and age.
In order to press the charge first century Christianity was influenced by ancient pagan religions, normally chronology gets ignored. Mithraism, for example, had very little presence within the Roman Empire in the first century, and so for that reason alone it simply could not have been a major influence on early Christianity's development. Scholar M. J. Vermaseren has stated: "No Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D." No images of this god were found in Pompeiiburied by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. A standard technique of skeptics is to place something done by a pagan religion in a later century, to the first century and say it influenced the first century church. An example is communion (the Passover ceremony) which was similar to Mithraism's ceremonial meals. They will take an inscription dated from 376 A.D. that said, in Latin, "reborn for eternity in the taurobolium and criobolium," and say these pagan ceremonies that sacrificed bulls and sheep influenced first century Christianity's idea of spiritual begettal. By this time the pagans could have easily gotten the idea from Christianity instead!
The Need to be Specific
Furthermore, once one becomes highly specific about the legends in question, the apparent similarities to Christianity vanish. For example, in the mystery religion of "Cybele and Attus", Attus comes alive after dying. To call this a "resurrection" is to apply Christian terminology in order to force an analogy. In the legend, Attus' body was preserved, his hair would grow, and a finger would moveand that was it. In another version of the myth, he became an evergreen tree. While one can find other "savior gods" in pagan religions, one discovers upon closer examination that only in Christianity was the death of God for other people, that it was for sin, that it was once for all, and that it was an actual event in history, not a myth..
Or, consider the ceremony in which a bull would be killed on top of a pit which had boards covering it. The pagan believers would be below, and move around to try to get the blood from it to drip on them. To label this a "blood baptism" ignores how this ceremony, called the taurobolium, was not an initiation rite for new believers. It was something done repeatedly by the same individuals, unlike baptism in Christianitywhich immerses the believer in water only once and does not splatter blood on the believer.
A number of differences existed between the mystery religions and Christianity. The mystery religions, as well as Gnosticism, attempted to have special, secret knowledge known only to a few initiates of the "truth." In contrast, Christianity sought to publicly proclaim "Christ, and Him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2) and His message to the world. To everyone, whether they believed or not. Christianity maintained there was only one way to salvation (Acts 4:12; John 14:6), and so believed in exclusivity. Believers in pagan religions did not care how many gods they or others worshipped. Most of these religions (Mithraism being the exception) had notions of "resurrections" that were tied to a cyclical view of nature and of history. This was arrived at by looking at the birth, death, and rebirth of vegetation from spring to winter and back again.
By contrast, Christianity emphatically believes in a linear view of time and history, because God created the world at a specific time in the past, and because Jesus died "once for all." Christianity also has a much stronger ethical, moral, and intellectual aspect than most mystery religions. Who can deny the demanding and majestic sweep of Christian ethics as proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, the Letter of James, the "Love Chapter" of I Cor. 13? The idea of salvation in paganism did not involve a moral change or moral duties or deliverance from sin, while Christianity's idea of it involved all three. It is for reasons such as these, against the charge Paul created a mystery religion on a Jewish base, that historian of philosophy Gordon Clark said: "Such surmises are not so much bad scholarship as prejudiced irresponsibility."
Similarities Do Not Prove Dependence
German scholar, Adolf von Harnack, made an excellent summary statement against the idea that Christianity was influenced by pagan mystery religions, which is worth quoting at length: "We must reject the comparative mythology which finds a causal connection between everything and everything else, which tears down solid barriers, bridges chasms as though it were child's play, and spins combinations from superficial similarities. . . . By such methods one can turn Christ into a sun god in the twinkling of an eye, or one can bring up the legends attending the birth of every conceivable god, or one can catch all sorts of mythological doves to keep company with the baptismal dove; and find any number of celebrated asses to follow the ass on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem; and thus, with the magic wand of 'comparative religion,' triumphantly eliminate every spontaneous trait in any religion." In short, similarities do not prove causal influence; just because true and false religions have some similar ideas, it does not mean that the true got them from the false. This is especially true when the specifics of the pagan myths are compared to the New Testament doctrines.
Reasons for Faith
"Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the gospels was really surprisingly good. 'Rum thing,' he went on. 'All that stuff of Frazer's [the author of "The Golden Bough"] about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had happened once.'" These comments made to C.S. Lewis were the straw that broke the camel's back of his unbelief, directly leading to him embracing Christianity. He knew the implications of the historical accuracy of the Gospels for his past atheism, and he saw the apparent similarities between certain pagan ideas and Christianity's as reason to believe, not to deny. Similarly, we should remember that the evidence for the New Testament's historical reliability and for its lack of connection to pagan mystery religion is very strong, and has only been briefly touched here.
May we remember that Jesus is the Messiah, that those who deny Him as Savior cannot be saved (Matt. 10:33): "But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven."
Two Highly Recommended Books:
Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993)
Ronald Nash, The Gospel and the GreeksDid the New Testament Borrow From Pagan Thought? (Richardson, Texas: Probe Books, 1992).
For Further Reading
Gleason Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982).
F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1960); The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1988).
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) [This work is by a secular historian, and not a believer in the Messiah].
Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1988).
Jehovah's Witnesses, The Bible: God's Word or Man's? (New York: Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1989).
C.S. Lewis, Walter Hooper, ed., God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970).
Paul Little, Know Why You Believe (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1988).
Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter: Evidence That Demands a Verdict Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979), vol 1; The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers, 1981); with Don Stewart, Answers to Tough Questions (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986).
Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958).
Henry M. Morris and Henry M. Morris, III, Many Infallible Proofs: Evidences for the Christian Faith (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 1996).
R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984). [Warning!only for the determined reader!] &
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